Parliament of the United Kingdom

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The Houses of Parliament, seen over Westminster Bridge

The Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (commonly referred to as the British Parliament, the Westminster Parliament) is the supreme legislative body in the United Kingdom, located in London. It consists of an upper house, the House of Lords (mainly life and hereditary peers) and the House of Commons (an elected lower house). Parliament alone possesses legislative supremacy and thereby ultimate power over all other political bodies in the UK. At its head is the Sovereign, King Charles III who announces his government's legislative programme for the forthcoming session in the King's speech at the State Opening of Parliament. The executive authority of the government (the King-in-Parliament) is formally granted on behalf of the crown.


  • We may be proud that England is the ancient country of Parliaments. With scarcely any intervening period, Parliaments have met constantly for 600 years, and there was something of a Parliament before the Conquest. England is the mother of Parliaments.
  • Parliament is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests; which interests each must maintain, as an agent and advocate, against other agents and advocates; but parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole; where, not local purposes, not local prejudices ought to guide, but the general good, resulting from the general reason of the whole. You choose a member indeed; but when you have chosen him, he is not a member of Bristol, but he is a member of parliament.
    • Edmund Burke, Speech to the Electors of Bristol (1774-11-03); as published in The Works of the Right Hon. Edmund Burke (1834).
  • The power of discretionary disqualification by one law of Parliament, and the necessity of paying every debt of the Civil List by another law of Parliament, if suffered to pass unnoticed, must establish such a fund of rewards and terrors as will make Parliament the best appendage and support of arbitrary power that ever was invented by the wit of man.
    • Edmund Burke, Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents (1770).
  • The unique continuity of the British parliamentary system has provided an unparalleled stage for political theatre over the past two hundred years. During the two centuries which separate the age of William Pitt from the age of Gordon Brown the conduct of politics has been transformed almost beyond recognition. The electorate has grown from a few thousand well-born men to include the entire adult population - forty-five million men and women at the last election. Debate that was once conducted in elaborately rhetorical speeches, often lasting several hours, in the chamber of the House of Commons is now concentrated into thirty-second soundbites on television, replayed infinitely on the internet. Governments come and go, parties rise and decline, the issues and ideologies which form the content of political controversy change over time - liberty or order; the prerogatives of the Crown or the House of Lords; tariffs or free trade; capitalism or socialism (or the particular balance between the two); above all, peace or war and the morality and cost of foreign interventions, whether in colonial America, continental Europe or the Middle East. Yet through all these changes of style and substance, the rivalry of ambitious individuals competing for the highest offices - the same offices, for the most part - has remained a constant, and the conduct of politicians merely adapts to different contexts. There is in every age a small number of dominating personalities who embody the contending philosophies of the moment; the clashing egos and human strengths and weaknesses of these key individuals shape the arguments and determine the historical outcome. These are the leaders who define their age.
    • John Campbell, Pistols at Dawn: Two Hundred Years of Political Rivalry from Pitt and Fox to Blair and Brown, p. 2
  • I have only two or three sentences to add. They will convey to the House my deep gratitude to this House of Commons, which has proved itself the strongest foundation for waging war that has ever been seen in the whole of our long history. We have all of us made our mistakes, but the strength of the Parliamentary institution has been shown to enable it at the same moment to preserve all the title-deeds of democracy while waging war in the most stern and protracted form. I wish to give my hearty thanks to men of all Parties, to everyone in every part of the House where they sit, for the way in which the liveliness of Parliamentary institutions has been maintained under the fire of the enemy, and for the way in which we have been able to persevere-and we could have persevered much longer if need had been-till all the objectives which we set before us for the procuring of the unlimited and unconditional surrender of the enemy had been achieved. I recollect well at the end of the last war, more than a quarter of a century ago, that the House, when it heard the long list of the surrender terms, the armistice terms, which had been imposed upon the Germans, did not feel inclined for debate or business, but desired to offer thanks to Almighty God, to the Great Power which seems to shape and design the fortunes of nations and the destiny of man; and I therefore beg, Sir, with your permission to move: That this House do now attend at the Church of St. Margaret, Westminster, to give humble and reverent thanks to Almighty God for our deliverance from the threat of German domination.
  • The principle of Parliamentary sovereignty means neither more nor less than this, namely, that Parliament thus defined has, under the English constitution, the right to make or unmake any law whatever; and, further, that no person or body is recognised by the law of England as having a right to override or set aside the legislation of Parliament.
    • A. V. Dicey, Introduction to the Study of the Law of the Constitution [Eighth Edition, 1915] (1982), pp. 3-4
  • The true hero of the ‘long’ revolution was neither William nor the Whigs; it was the institution of Parliament itself. Throughout the 17th century, Parliament never quite lost its nerve – except perhaps under Cromwell. Sitting at Westminster, it was the unchallenged forum of the nation. Through each crisis, it gave monarchy every chance to save itself. Its membership may have been undemocratic, but its dross of bishops and aristocrats was leavened by new men and new interests. Neither mobs in the street nor rebellions in the provinces ever seized the initiative. The British people were not revolutionized. The events of 1688 did not widen the parliamentary franchise or extend constituency representation. But they were a step in the long road to democracy. As such, they were, as Cromwell would have said, a cruel necessity.
    • Simon Jenkins, "The English Revolution, 1642-1689," in Revolutions: How They Changed History and What They Mean Today (2020), ed. by Peter Furtado
  • When trade is at stake, it is your last entrenchment; you must defend it, or perish...Sir, Spain knows the consequence of a war in America; whoever gains, it must prove fatal to this any longer a nation? Is this any longer an English Parliament, if with more ships in your harbours than in all the navies of Europe; with above two millions of people in your American colonies, you will bear to hear of the expediency of receiving from Spain an insecure, unsatisfactory, dishonourable Convention?
    • William Pitt, 1st Earl of Chatham, Denouncing the Spanish Convention of Prado in the House of Commons (6 March, 1739), reported in William Pitt, The Speeches of the Right Honourable the Earl of Chatham in the Houses of Lords and Commons: With a Biographical Memoir and Introductions and Explanatory Notes to the Speeches (London: Aylott & Jones, 1848), pp. 6-7.
  • There are many things a parliament cannot do. It cannot make itself executive, nor dispose of offices which belong to the crown. It cannot take any man's property, even that of the meanest cottager, as in the case of enclosures, without his being heard.
  • The House of Commons is called the Lower House, in twenty Acts of Parliament; but what are twenty Acts of Parliament amongst Friends?
  • The objection to judicial interference in politics is that it undermines the democratic legitimacy of public decision making. The problem that we have here is that the government itself has sought to undermine the democratic legitimacy of public decision making by dispensing with a central feature of our constitution, namely that ministers are answerable to parliament. What the Supreme Court has done is to invent a brand new rule, that is undoubtedly controversial, a brand new constitutional rule, the effect of which is to reinstate parliament at the heart of the decision-making process. And that is not undermining democracy at all, nor is it a coup, it is simply replacing what ought to have happened by convention, by law, in circumstances where the government has tried to kick away the conventions.
  • The King governs by Law. Let us look back to the evils we had, in order to prevent more. There was loan, and ship-money, and extremes begat extremes. The House would then give no money. Let the King rely upon the Parliament; we have settled the Crown and the Government. 'Tis strange that we have sat so many years, and given so much money, and are still called upon for Supply. The Lords may give Supply with their own money, but we give the peoples; we are their proxies. The King takes his measures by the Parliament, and he doubts not but that all the Commons will supply for the Government; but giving at this rate that we have done, we shall be "a branch of the revenue." They will "anticipate" us too. But, let the officers say what they will, we will not make these mismanagements the King's error. 'Tis better it should fall upon us than the King. We give public money, and must see that it goes to public use. Tell your money, fix it to public ends, and take order against occasions of this nature for the future. We cannot live at the expence of Spain, that has the Indies; or France, who has so many millions of revenue. Let us look to our Government, Fleet, and Trade. 'Tis the advice that the oldest Parliament-man among you can give you; and so, God bless you!
Quotes reported in James William Norton-Kyshe, The Dictionary of Legal Quotations (1904), p. 189-193.
  • This Court is a standing Court, and the law doth adjourn it from time to time: but a Parliament is a new Court, they appear, and are always summoned by new writs.
    • Rolle, C.J., Case of Captain Streater on an Habeas Corpus (1653), 5 How. St. Tr. 400.
  • The Crown used to call a Parliament annually, but there was not an annual election. These words, annuo parliamento, relate to the time of their meeting, and not their election.
    • Giles Rooke, J., Trial of Redhead alias Yorke (1795), 25 How. St. Tr. 1081.
  • To one who marvelled what should be the reason that Acts and Statutes are continually made at every Parliament, without intermission, and without end, a wise man made a good and short answer, both which are well composed in verse:
    "Quseritur, ut crescunt tot magna volumina legis?
    In promptu causa est, crescit in orbe dolus."
  • There is no providence or wisdom of man, nor of any council of men that can foresee and provide for all events and variety of cases, that will or may arise upon the making of a new law.
    • Sir Robert Atkyns, L.C.B., Trial of Sir Edward Halet (1686), 11 How. St. Tr. 1208.
  • The causes of the multiplicity of the English laws are, the extent of the country which they govern; the commerce and refinement of its inhabitants; but above all, the liberty and property of the subject.
  • Lex Parliamenti is to be regarded as the law of the realm; but, supposing it to be a particular law, yet if a question arise determinable in the King's Bench, the King's Bench ought to determine it.— Bridgman, C.J., Binion v. Evelin (1662), Dyer, 60; Carth. 137; 1 Show. 99.
  • If a man be committed by Parliament, and the Parliament is prorogued, the King's Bench will grant a habeas corpus. The common law then does not take notice of any such law of Parliament to determine inheritance originally. If there is any such, it ought either to be by act of Parliament, and there is no such act; or it ought to be by custom, and no more is there any such custom.
    • Lord Holt, Rex et Reg. v. Knollys (1694), 1 Ld. Raym. 11.
  • This Court (Lords House of Parliament), which ought to be an example to all other Courts, will ever hold in the highest reverence the indulgent character of British justice.
    • Lord Erskine, L.C., Trial of Lord Viscount Melville (1806), 29 How. St. Tr. 1249.
  • We cannot hear the integrity and wisdom of Parliament questioned in this Court.
    • Abbott, C.J., King v. Edmonds and others (1821), 1 St. Tr. (N. S.) 927.
  • The House of Commons are a great branch of the Constitution, and are chose by ourselves, and are our trustees; and it cannot be supposed, nor ought to be presumed, that they will exceed their bounds, or do anything amiss . . . this is a very foreign supposition, and what ought not to be said by any Englishman.
    • Powys, J., Reg. v. Paty (1704), 2 Raym. 1109.
  • Every facility ought undoubtedly to be given to all persons applying to either House of Parliament or to any Court of Justice for the redress of any alleged grievance.
    • Littledale, J., Stockdale v. Hansard (1837), 3 St. Tr. (N. S.) 922.
  • The House of Commons are the representatives of the people.
    • Gould, J., Reg. v. Paty (1704), 2 Raym. 1107.
  • It would look very strange, when the Commons of England are so fond of their right of sending representatives to Parliament, that it should be in the power of a sheriff, or other officer, to deprive them of that right, and yet that they should have no remedy; it is a thing to be admired at by all mankind.
    • Holt, C.J., Ashby v. White (1703), 2 Raym. 954.
  • I disclaim the power of legislation which is asserted to exist in this Court, and I say that, if such a right is to be created, it must be created by the Legislature properly so called.
    • Jessel, M.R., Day v. Brownrigg (1878), L. R. 10 C. D. 302.
  • It is the province of the statesman and not the lawyer to discuss, and of the legislature to determine, what is the best for the public good, and to provide for it by proper enactments. It is the province of the Judge to expound the law only—the written from the statute, the unwritten or common law from the decisions of our predecessors and of our existing Courts—from the text-writers of acknowledged authority, and upon the principles to be clearly deduced from them by sound reason and just inference—not to speculate upon what is the best, in his opinion, for the advantage of the community.
    • Coleridge, J., Brownlow v. Egerton (1854), 23 L. J. Rep. Part 5 (N. S.), Ch. 370.
  • If the legislature have not gone far enough, it is for them, not for us, to remedy the defect.
    • Chambre, J., Grigby v. Oakes (1801), 1 Bos. & Pull. 529.
  • It is for the legislature to alter the law if Parliament in its wisdom thinks an alteration desirable.
  • To abolish a well-established rule of law because it is a bad rule, is the business of the legislature.
    • Stephen, J., Reg. v. Coney and others (1882), 15 Cox, C. C. 59.
  • What the legislature has not expressly enacted, the Judges ought not to presume that it intended.
  • The decisions of the House of Lords are binding on me and upon all the Courts except itself.
    • Sir John Romilly, M.R., Att.-Gen. v. The Dean and Canons of Windsor (1858), 24 Beav. 715.
  • By the Constitution of this United Kingdom, the House of Lords is the Court of Appeal in the last resort, and its decisions are authoritative and conclusive declarations of the existing state of the law, and are binding upon itself when sitting judicially, as much as upon all inferior tribunals. The observations made by members of the House, whether law members or lay members, beyond the ratio decidendi which is propounded and acted upon in giving judgment, although they may be entitled to respect, are only to be followed in as far as they may be considered agreeable to sound reason and to prior authorities. But the doctrine on which the judgment of the House is founded must be universally taken for law, and can only be altered by Act of Parliament. So it is, even where the House gives judgment in conformity to its rule of procedure, that where there is an equality of votes, semper presumitur pro negante.
    • Lord Campbell, L.C., Att.-Gen. v. Dean and Canons of Windsor (1860), 8 H. L. Cas. 391; 30 L. J. Ch. 531.

See also